Contradictions: Bearing Burdens and Loads

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Bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ. (Galatians 6:2)
For each one shall bear his own load. (Galatians 6:5)

On the face of it, these verses appear to say one thing and then say something entirely opposite: are burdens and loads to be borne collectively or individually? The contrast appears even stronger in the King James Version (and truly most English translations prior to the 1950s) where the word burden is used in both verses. Surely the Apostle Paul would not have made such a seemingly egregious error within just a few sentences. Certainly not—instead, he helps us to see how our love for one another in this work of burden-bearing emulates the love that our Lord Jesus has shown to us.

Help One Another Bear Unwieldy Burdens

The Apostle Paul exhorts us to “bear one another’s burdens” (verse 2). In contrast to the individualized load of verse 5, these burdens are extra heavy loads or situations that are difficult to endure by oneself. For example, this word is used variously in Scripture to refer to laborers bearing “the burden and the heat of the day” (Matthew 20:12) and the “eternal weight of glory” produced as we endure “our light affliction, which is but for a moment” (2 Corinthians 4:17). The related verb form reflects the excessive physical weariness of the disciples in Gethsemane (“their eyes were heavy [with sleep],” Matthew 26:43) and the oppressive personal resistance Paul and his companions faced in Asia where they “were burdened beyond measure, above strength” (2 Corinthians 1:8).

We do face situations in life that are weighty and oppressive, especially as they relate to our battle against sin and temptation.

We do face situations in life that are weighty and oppressive, especially as they relate to our battle against sin and temptation (Hebrews 12:4). So Paul says that we need to help one another bear these unwieldy and troublesome burdens as a fulfillment of Christ’s commandment of love (cf. Galatians 5:14). What is one way we can do that? The previous verse says, “Brethren, if a man is overtaken in any trespass, you who are spiritual restore such a one in a spirit of gentleness, considering yourself lest you also be tempted” (6:1).

Some burdens we must help one another bear are temptations to sin as well as sinful thoughts and practices. The word trespass or transgression describes sins as rebellious and disobedient as Adam’s sin in the garden (Romans 5:17), the sin of Israel’s unbelief in Jesus Christ (Romans 11:11), our sins against one another and God (Matthew 6:14–15), and our former state of being dead in our “trespasses and sins” (Ephesians 2:1, 5).

The word overtaken suggests that this brother may have been taken by surprise by the trespass and has been subsequently carried away with it. The brother may have become ensnared in sinful thoughts and practices, or perhaps he has given up, losing hope that he can ever get away from this trespass.

In this very situation, “you who are spiritual” must step forward to help in love. This refers to those who are indwelt by the Holy Spirit and who therefore seek to walk by the Spirit (Galatians 5:25). This is not a measure of spirituality as much as it is a statement of responsibility: Christians are to care for one another as an expression of our relationship with God.

What are we to do for our sinning brother? Paul says we are to “restore such a one in a spirit of gentleness” (Galatians 6:1). This is the gentle, careful, and sometimes time-consuming work of helping to rescue and straighten out the brother—not because we may have been offended by his sin, but because He has offended a holy God and is in a dangerous situation himself. We are not to despise or condemn him, gossip to others about him, or simply ignore him. As far as it depends upon us, we must do this without harsh, fierce, or contemptuous words, and without a hope for retribution or revenge. But motivated out of love for the brother we are to seek his liberty from this entangling sin (cf. Galatian 5:13).

Earlier in this letter to the Galatian churches, Paul gave us an example of this restorative expression of love. His fellow apostle, Peter, had visited the predominantly Gentile church in Antioch and shared non-kosher meals with them. But when Jewish believers came down from Jerusalem, Peter fell into the fear of man (cf. Proverbs 29:25) and withdrew from his Gentile brothers. His actions also influenced the other Jews, like Barnabas, who had been associating with the Gentiles. So Paul confronted Peter with the truth of his actions and the truth of the gospel: “knowing that a man is not justified by the works of the law but by faith in Jesus Christ, even we have believed in Christ Jesus, that we might be justified by faith in Christ and not by the works of the law; for by the works of the law no flesh shall be justified” (Galatians 2:17). Following Paul’s example, then, a primary way in which we “bear one another’s burdens” is by speaking truth to one another—specifically referencing thoughts or practices that fall short of God’s standard for us. This is also Paul’s general method in his epistles: communicating right doctrine and encouraging right practice in light of that truth.

Bear and Be Accountable for Our Individual Loads

In contrast to the unwieldy burdens we encounter, we each have a load that we can and must carry individually. The word load can be used nearly synonymously with burden, referring to those things that are carried, as in a tree branch upon the shoulders (Judges 9:48–49) or the cargo of a ship (Acts 27:10). It has the figurative connotation of something that may be difficult but not impossible to do, as in providing for the physical needs of another (2 Samuel 19:35). Loads can become oppressive beyond strength, as in the case of David’s awareness of his own sinfulness (Psalm 38:4) or the excessive man-made requirements put forward by the self-righteous Pharisees and lawyers (Luke 11:46). For those who feel the burden of sin or the overbearing requirements of the self-righteous, Jesus promises that His yoke is easy and His load is light (Matthew 11:28–30).

The key distinction Paul makes here is that there are some aspects of our lives that can only be dealt with individually.

Besides the subtle difference in terms, the key distinction Paul makes here is that there are some aspects of our lives that can only be dealt with individually. Proving our faithfulness, each of us must examine and take personal responsibility for our own performance (Galatians 6:4), knowing that our gracious Lord will call us to account for the deeds which we have done (2 Corinthians 5:10). While we help others we ought not to think that we are somehow exempt from the truth we are speaking to them—“considering yourself lest you also be tempted” (Galatians 6:1). There are all sorts of entangling temptations and sinful habits that catch us off-guard and unprepared. We ought to be wary of the sins of pride and vainglory as we might think of ourselves as better than our sinning brother, comparing our perceived strengths against our brother’s weakness. Neither should we be easily offended or exasperated at our struggling brother. Instead we must diligently examine and be honest about ourselves, knowing that we also are in need of admonition from our brother (Romans 15:14). We have every reason to be humble in our practice of sanctification (Galatians 6:3). If we do boast, we should boast in what Jesus has done for us (verse 14).

Jesus Bore the Weight of Our Sin

What does burden-bearing teach us about our Lord Jesus Christ? The Lord Jesus Christ “has redeemed us from the curse of the law, having become a curse for us” (3:13). He bore the oppressive burden of our sin in His own body, paying the penalty for our sins so “that we might be justified by faith” (verse 24). It was not the burden of His own sin which He bore on the Cross—for He was without sin—but He carried His own Cross to die in the place of sinners. As Jesus Himself said, “Greater love has no one than this, than to lay down one’s life for his friends” (John 15:13).

In the hours prior to His sacrificial death for us, our kind Lord and Savior Jesus Christ gave His followers a new commandment: “Love one another; as I have loved you” (John 13:34). He expected that the practice of this love by His obedient people would be so distinctive to a watching world that He said, “all will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another” (verse 35). So our identity in Christ fundamentally expresses itself in the practice of this mutual love. True love acts in the best interest of the other person, often at great sacrifice to oneself. May we follow our Lord’s example and fulfill His law of love.

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